We welcomed 1372 visitors through the doors of the Conceiving Histories exhibition in November and December 2017. Amongst the many generous comments in the Peltz Gallery visitors’ book, people described the exhibition as: ‘compassionate’, ‘moving’, incredible’, ‘fascinating’, ‘evocative’, ‘heart-breaking’, ‘haunting’ and ‘emotional’.
Anna and Isabel took around six tour groups, hosted a gallery launch and an academic/artist symposium, The Pregnant Archive, with Dr Emma Cheatle of Newcastle. We took part in the Being Human Festival, the UKs first national festival for humanities research.
We are sending out copies of our exhibition catalogue to those who couldn’t make it but would have liked to. If you would like a free copy contact Isabel (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your name and address and she’ll send one to you.
Isabel spoke to the amazing Natalie Silverman at the Fertility Podcast about the project in the lead up to our exhibition.
Four visitors were inspired to write blog posts about the exhibition:
How can something that doesn’t happen have a history? How can there be a material trace of un-pregnancy in the archive? This exhibition explores this paradox, finding and reimagining a material history of pregnancy feigned, imagined, hidden and difficult to diagnose. Whilst reproductive medicine is at the front of scientific modernity, biomedical technology has no jurisdiction over the experiences of waiting, unknowing and disappointment.
Conceiving Histories is a collaboration between literary historian, Isabel Davis, and visual artist, Anna Burel, producing creative and fictional reworkings of the archival materials of un-pregnancy. This exhibition re-materialises the past, giving structure and shape to things that have been left to us in text. The artworks explore the search for knowledge about a reproductive body which is as opaque as history: resistant, mediated and contested. They reflect on the signs of pregnancy in, from and on the body, and on messages and messengers, divine or earthly. Empty uterine spaces are imagined here displaced from the corporeal frame, labelled and dated, filled with strange visions. Swollen and flat structures, pads and envelopes, hollow and filled, contrast the fantasies of or desire for pregnancy with the reality of the un-pregnant body.
Behind the Exhibition
Come and hear about the making of the work and some of the research behind it. This event will be exploring the curious material history of un-pregnancy, that is of pregnancies feigned, imagined, hidden and difficult to diagnose, and how this history can be re-imagined and materialised to think about conception and fertility today.
In particular, we will be further exploring the case of Mary Tudor and her two false pregnancies and twentieth-century frog pregnancy testing.
There will be a wine reception and a chance to visit the exhibition.
We’re pleased to announce that Conceiving Histories is part of the Being Human Festival programme in November 2016. The festival is a showcase of current humanities research and there is a great programme of events across the country. The theme this year is ‘Hope and Fear’, which speaks directly into the heart of what the Conceiving Histories project is all about.
FREE – book here. When: 23rd November 2016, 6pm-8pm (includes a wine reception).
Hope and fear are projections of the future. Whether hoping or fearing pregnancy, waiting to find out can be difficult. This project looks at what happens in that wait, in the fantasy space before diagnosis – of pregnancy or infertility. How does future projection affect our present? This interest in the present and the future is informed by a study of the past. History, it turns out, is a good way of reflecting on how things are for us and how they could be in the future, a reminder that we are not the first to struggle with uncertainty in our own bodies or in our lives.
Conceiving histories will be addressing the theme of Hope and Fear in the history of un-pregnancy through two curious case studies. One looks at an odd fashion from 1792-3 for the Pad, a false tummy which simulated pregnancy. Most of the evidence for it is from contemporary satire, like in this image here which laughs at the idea that, with a Pad, anyone – old or young – could be ‘pregnant’ with this new look. Even the little girl on the left is padded and so is her doll.
We look at the ludic celebration of this potentially absurd fashion but ask some serious questions about it. Today maternity fashions are very exclusive. The divide between maternity wear and other fashions is carefully observed. How does this contribute to the other social distinctions we make between women who can have children and those who can’t or haven’t yet? How does this exclusivity make us feel? Can we imagine fashions for today that enable a participation in pregnancy for all? When we look at the comedy in these depictions of this fashion can we reflect on the potential humiliation in not being, or not being able to be pregnant?
Our other case study is darker, responding more to the festival’s theme of fear. It explores an idea for a strange institution, the experimental conception hospital, described in a commentary on a peerage dispute from 1825-6. With high walls and strict staff recruited from nunneries, the hospital would be a secure and secret space in which a hundred women were brought in as experimental subjects. These experiments would solve pressing questions about how to diagnose early pregnancy in an age before reliable pregnancy testing and calculate precisely the length of gestation. What a public service that would be! The experimental conception hospital presents a fantasy about the future but one which looks back to the medieval past. Just as our project does, it sees history as key to our reproductive futures. We’ll be looking at this intriguing historical example to think about fantasies of scientific objectivity in relation to the reproductive body and why such fantasies might trigger a return to historic ideas and materials.
Isabel Davis and Anna Burel will be discussing these case studies, considering them historically. However, they will also be presenting new artistic responses to them which are helping to shape the Conceiving Histories project. There will be time to ask questions or offer comments on the work presented and a wine reception for more informal conversation.
Please be aware that the artwork in this event tackles the emotive subject of the female body in relation to pregnancy. Some people may find the images that will be presented disturbing. Click here to see the character of the work, although not the specific images involved in this event.
You may also be interested in another event, also at the Being Human Festival:
The Maternity Tales Listening Booth, an interactive installation exploring the spatial history of childbirth. Created by architectural historian, Dr Emma Cheatle, see and hear accounts of homes and midwives in the 18th century and lying-in hospitals in the 19th century. Fill in questionnaires or make recordings of your own experiences of maternity spaces.